Saturday, February 28, 2009

Writing Like a Native: More Quick Tips for ESL Writers

This second round of tips has less to do with specific strategies and more to do with developing habits. Like playing the piano or riding a bicycle, writing in a particular language requires practice. The more you do it, the better you will become. The question is, how do you know if you are practicing it the right way? You don't want to spend years reinforcing bad habits, so here are few ideas for developing positive, language-building habits.


1) Involve as Many Senses as Possible

Just reading words on a page will only get you so far. If you really want to learn how to speak and write like a native speaker, you need to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. In addition to reading English, you also need to speak it and, above all, hear it. If you do not live in a place where English is regularly spoken, the internet provides many alternatives. With news podcasts, live radio streaming, and even YouTube, you have a wide variety of opportunities to access real, spoken English. Listen to a news program or radio broadcast and then try to mimic the words they say.

Unlike reading, which requires a large amount of brain power and attention, listening to a radio simulcast requires much less of your direct attention. You can play it in the background while doing other things, such as cooking, eating, or even sleeping. That's right. When I was trying to learn German, I used put on a simulcast of German radio when I would lay down for an afternoon nap. Sometimes, this type of passive listening can help you with pronunciation, pitch, and vocabulary.


2) Read a Newspaper, Especially the Living or Lifestyle Section

Newspapers are the single greatest source for interesting and up-to-date information in a target language. Newspapers also contain more idiomatic (colloquial) language than anything else. There was a woman who came to the Writing Lab Conversation Group every day with questions about the words used in the Purdue student newspaper. Just by reading the student interviews and profiles, she was able to gain quick and easy access to the linguistic world of native speakers. If there are no English-language newspapers in your area, newspapers also have great online content. Just Google your favorite newspaper, and you will generally find the same information as you would find in the print edition.

If you have limited extra time during your day, I suggest looking through the Lifestyle or Living section of a newspaper (the one filled with local profiles, cartoons, and advice columns). These sections generally contain the highest amout of easy-to-read language, and they are also the most interesting. Sometimes it is tough to concentrate on a news story discussing complex political or economic issues. It is much more easy to relate to a woman seeking advice about her nosy mother-in-law.


3) Write Emails to a Native Speaker

Most composition work is now done on a computer, and so if you are looking to improve your English writing skills on the computer, you should do it in as many venues as possible. The easiest and most rewarding venue is email. Make it a habit to write at least one email per day to a native speaker of your target language. Don't limit yourself to conversational topics such as the weather. Try to discuss what you are learning in one of your classes, or try to tell them about recent political developments in your country. Once you find success composing emails to native friends, you may find that composing an essay in English has also become easier. Emails are high reward, low risk writing tasks. You won't receive a bad grade or failing test score for making a mistake.

If don't have any native speaker friends, there are plenty of places that will help you. Try posting something on someone's blog. You could even post something on this blog! Or try an international pen pal Web site like,


As always, good luck, and I would love to hear from some of you out there about your own L2 (second language) composition strategies.

Brady Spangenberg

Friday, February 20, 2009

Writing Like a Native: Quick Tips for ESL Writers

Do you wish you could write like a native-speaker but feel like something always gets in the way? It may be just a missing article or the wrong preposition, but somehow your writing doesn't quite read like English. You may have had the frustrating experience of some instructor or reader muttering, "Well, you can't really say it THAT way." Unless you have the time and the money to go through an intensive immersion program, you may find it difficult to know exactly how to phrase it in English without some extra help. So here are a few quick tips that will help you check your how to say it in English.

1) Google + Quotation Marks
A quick Google search is the best way to check for the most appropriate ways to use prepositions and articles. For example, if you are not sure whether you should say "at Purdue," "in Purdue," or "on Purdue's campus," type each of these phrases, surrounded by quotation marks, into Google. The results will provide you with examples in context. You will not only get a sense of how people use the phrase, but you will also be able to judge how often people use the phrase. If your Google search turns up only 3 hits, you can be pretty sure that the phrase, "in Purdue's campus," is not a phrase that native English speakers often use.

Try these two phrases and see which one pops up the most and in which contexts. You may find that sites using more colloquial (spoken) language will favor one expression.

"at the house of my mother" vs. "at my mother's house"

Remember that for an accurate representation of which phrases people use and how, you need to enclose the phrase in quotation marks. That way, the search will only look for the phrase.


2) Use a Thesaurus
Once you have established a working English vocabulary, a thesaurus (dictionary of synonyms) is one of the best tools for expanding it. You don't even need to have a printed version anymore. Most word processing programs, such as Microsoft Word, are already equipped with a thesaurus function. All you need to do is:

highlight the word and then hit "shift + f7."

The program will automatically bring up a list of synonyms and a few antonyms. Other resources include This strategy does not just apply to ESL writers. Even native writers can forget about words from time to time. Especially if you find yourself using the same verb, particularly a generic verb, over and over again, using a thesaurus can bring some great variety to your writing. You may also find that a more specific and expressive verb exists than the one currently stuck in your mind.

Here is a list of generic verbs that should be "thesaurus-ized."

make, do, say, talk (about), work, think, have, like
and any form of "to be" (is, are, was, were)


3) Read it Aloud (Slowly)
Because many writers focus so intensely on creating the perfect sentence, they often overlook more general grammar principles, such as plurals, subject-verb agreement, and verb tense. I have found that writers can often recognize their own mistakes if they read their papers aloud and pay careful attention so that the words they say match the words on the page. Writers will often say the phrase correctly even though it is incorrect on the page. Here is an example:

"Yesterday, she walk to the store with three empty bag."

Attentive readers may notice that the word "yesterday" requires that the verb should be in the past tense (i.e. "walked). They may also notice that the number three means that "bag" should be in the plural.

If you find it difficult to read and edit or if you do not notice your mistakes, find a friend to read along with you. The friend should mark down any differences between what you say and what is on the page.


Hope these tips help, and, as always, if anyone out there has any other tips, please share them.

Brady Spangenberg

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A rose by any other name

Well, here in Australia, it's almost the start of the new academic year. I thought it would be a good time to review some of the topics on our Grammar Gang blog and because it's just 2 days until St Valentine's Day, I want to take a look at my favourite Shakespearean sonnet.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd:
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:

But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breath, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

Can you believe the length of this sentence? Does anyone want to 'have a go at' counting independent clauses? (Have a go at = attempt to, in Australian English usage.)

Of course, Shakespeare's use of punctuation is known as 'poetic licence' but I wonder if you all approve of his use of colons and semi-colons and if you would find it easier to read if he'd used more sentences with full-stops? (I know I would find it easier to read if he had.)

I asked my daughter to 'have a go at' writing the first 2 lines of the sonnet in her own words and this is what she came up with:

If I compared you with a day in summer, I'd have to say that you are even more beautiful and gentle'

She adds that this would be saying quite a lot, as she was born on December 1st, the first day of Summer which is also her favourite season!

I then asked a young guy who lives in our street for his interpretation of the first two lines which were:

You're dead gorgeous and really hot but not that extreme sort of hot that you get on a day in a heatwave'.

We'll, we'd love to hear your version of the first 2 lines or better still, of the whole poem so post away!


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Two Minute Semicolon Lesson

Unlike the comma, which can take five minutes to explain, the semicolon is quite an easy punctuation mark. So that is why this post should only take two minutes to read. The semicolon has two main uses. They are used to join two independent clauses (minus the coordinating conjunction). They are also used to divide long or comma-laden elements in a series. Aside from its small role in bibliographic references, the semicolon has no other traditional function in English grammar.


When you use a semicolon to combine independent clauses, make sure that both of the clauses share a direct and logical connection. The second clause should either restate or emphasize the first clause in some way.

Professor Johnson believes that people should obey traffic laws at all times; the roadways, he says, are already dangerous enough.


Semicolons can also be used to set off items in a complex series. A series is considered complex if it includes items with their own commas or lists with a conjunction in each item.

Simple example with conjunctions
He walks and talks; chews and thinks; and runs and stumbles.

Simple example with commas
For the European Cup, football matches were played in Vienna, Austria; Basel, Switzerland; and Salzburg, Austria.